Monday, November 21, 2011

Answering the Question “What do you do?”

This post is from our colleague Thorin Tritter, who is the Managing Director of FASPE, a graduate-level program that teaches contemporary ethics through the examination of the role of specific professions during the Holocaust. He also has a great sense of humor, but that is not on display, for obvious reasons, in the post below.

I am new to the Museum of Jewish Heritage and have been struggling with how to introduce myself to new acquaintances without coming across as too depressing. I direct a program, called FASPE (Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics), that takes graduate students in professional schools to Europe where they learn about the role of their chosen professions in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and then use that historic framework to explore contemporary ethics.

I am proud of the program, but the fact is I work on an ugly aspect of world history and spend my time studying and teaching about a very dark time. At a recent cocktail party in my town, I felt my answer to the common question “What do you do?” appeared to cast a black shadow over me. The more common responses of “lawyer,” “banker,” or “sales” might not yield exciting conversation, but they rarely seemed to cast a pall over the party like “Holocaust.” I tried out some other answers, like the vague “I’m a historian” or “I work at a museum,” but there was inevitably a follow-up question that led to my using the word “Holocaust.”

In my nervousness, I made vague attempts at humor, and they were just that: awkward attempts that left my companions even more perplexed. Now despite the topic of my work, I see myself as a relatively upbeat and happy person. The darkness of the Holocaust does not fit my personality – (does it fit anyone’s personality)? What to do? Any thoughts? I’d love to hear them.

Please post your suggestions and help Thorin out.


Betsy said...

It's a very good question. I usually follow up my answer with: I've met some of the most amazing and inspiring survivors who are some of the most optimistic people I know. That makes our jobs sound far less depressing, and it is true.

Shiri said...

I have a hard time with that, too, since I have not only Holocaust to contend with, but having "Auschwitz" in my title. I try to explain the hopeful parts of what we do, and how much I love to work with students. The pall doesn't go away, though. I like to move on from it relatively quickly!